Monday, 4 April 2011

Viral disillusionment

Several of my old Euromasters colleagues have been posting this article on Facebook. I read it in the print edition when flying back after Christmas break (The Economist is one of my usual in-flight reads--along with Cosmo). When I skimmed it at the time, I just thought it was really depressing. The subtitle reads "Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time"--and here I was reading this in my 3rd month as a PhD student. I thought I was starting out on this great academic career, and then this article shot that dream down. I was so disillusioned...but now, reading it again only a few months later, I've come to appreciate some of its points and take the article not as a dream-breaker, but as a word of caution.

One major point is that students should only choose to do a PhD for the right reasons, i.e. if it will actually materially benefit them in their future careers. "In one study of British PhD graduates, about a third admitted that they were doing their doctorate partly to go on being a student, or put off job hunting." That's a pretty lousy excuse to spend three years accumulating student loan debt. The first time I approached Phil Taylor about doing a PhD, he asked me why I wanted to do it. I said that I wanted to stay in academia and become a lecturer, and he said that's the right answer. He warned me that in order to successfully complete a PhD, you have to be sure--sure that you want to do this particular topic, that you want to be an academic, that there's nothing else you'd rather spend 3 years doing, etc. The article is basically giving the same advice he did, but in a much harsher way by saying that the "PhD is often a waste of time"--it's a waste of time for people who go into it for the wrong reasons.

There was one passage that I really disagreed with, though : "One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread." How can the Economist of all magazines possibly call PhD work "slave labour"??? Other articles in the same magazine discuss countries that actually have slave labour--agricultural laborers working sunrise to sunset in the fields, children in sweatshops making athletic shoes and carpets and hand-embroidered dresses. And they have the audacity to call TA-ing, grading essays and reading academic journals "slave labour"? When I'm drinking my caramel macchiato and typing up notes in a netbook, I don't exactly feel like a slave.

I get the main argument. There is an oversupply of PhD's. It will be hard to get a job when I graduate. Fair enough--but since the PhD is often a prerequisite for a job in academia, not doing the PhD would make it even more impossible to do what I want to do.

If we were all to follow this author's advice and not take the steps required to do what we've dreamed of doing because it's statistically very difficult, then there would be no artists, no professional athletes, no poets, no novelists--and no journalists writing for The Economist!

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